Planning & Zoning considers new scout cabin on West Avenue; Hears from proponents and opponents
The Planning & Zoning Commission public hearing for a new Boy Scout cabin on the site of current Andrew Shaw Memorial Trust cabin was a long and emotional one Tuesday night.
For more than three hours, commissioners listened and questioned several representatives from Darien Boy Scouts, including engineers, and architects, as well as neighbors of the cabin.
Darien Boy Scouts have said that the new cabin will address new FEMA requirements and structural issues with the existing building as well as meeting the growing needs of the organization.
The current Scout Cabin was built in 1998 to accommodate one Boy Scout troop of 60 scouts and adult leaders. Today, it serves more than 300 Darien youth through two Boy Scout troops, four Cub Scout packs. In addition, the Boy Scouts of America is opening Scout troops and Cub packs to girls, which will likely grow the program even further in the upcoming decade. Scouts need more meeting and administrative space, as well as a modern technology infrastructure to best serve these programs, they said in a press release.
“It is this stable home, along with a strong program and active volunteers, that has enabled Scouting to flourish in Darien for over 100 years, developing boys’ character, citizenship, and self-reliance, and helping more than 40 community organizations along the way,” Joellyn Gray, a trustee for the Andrew Shaw Memorial Trust, said.
The cabin is also home to the STEM Venture Crew, a co-ed program for high school students who lead science, technology, engineering, and math education programs for elementary school students in Darien, Norwalk, and Stamford.
The cabin faces major maintenance issues, including a leaking roof and inadequate kitchen. Compounding the problem, new FEMA flood maps locate the current Scout Cabin at the high water mark of the 100-year floodplain, which will limit the Scouts’ investment and requiring costly flood-proofing.
Gray told P&Z the cabin has major structural issues and the new building will be flood proof. So far, the scouts have raised $3 million in their capital campaign toward the construction.
Wilder Gleason, attorney for the Darien Boy Scouts, said the new building more than meets FEMA requirements. He also said the new construction would add five parking spots (making it 27), and said there were agreements in place to use parking spots after business hours, including Ring’s End.
The commissioners discussed the size of the troops and the use of the building, as well as the lights in the parking lot.
Craig Flaherty, who serves on the Sewer Commission and was a previous member of the town’s flood mitigation committee, discussed the installation of porous asphalt for flood mitigation on the site. He said the Environmental Protection Commission looked favorably on the flooding and water improvements.
Joseph Canas, an engineer and floodplain manager, said he had issued a letter expressing concerns earlier in the project planning stages, but said those had been addressed and he issued a new letter saying the new plans had significant improvement.
“The applicants did a great job,” he said.
Boy Scout Jack Holly, a junior in Troop 35, said the building is one of the most important in town and is more than a structure, it is “an incubator grooming future leaders.”
Jack said when he passes the photos of the early scouts he feels their calling in the way of Dead Poet’s Society — telling him to “seize the day, make us proud.”
Eagle Scout Siddhant Parwal said Boy Scouts are more than an organization, they are a family. “Every family has a home. Ours is falling apart and being flooded,” he said.
Parwal also talked about the importance to the community of Eagle Scout projects — he said his own was to revive the butterfly garden in Sellecks Woods, a Darien Land Trust property.
Leslie Pennington, a Darien Boy Scout Trustee, discussed the annual Darien Boy Scout tag sale. The tag sale has run for the last 46 years and Pennington said it was a “critical component of the scouts’ success.”
“It is imperative revenue. We get no funding. We raise every dollar we need,” she said.
Pennington also said the tag sale is an “invaluable resource to the town.” She said the scouts and volunteers sell items that would end up otherwise in landfills, they collect them, sort them, donate the leftovers and responsibly recycle whats left.
She also added that the scouts have made numerous accomodations for the neighborhood including hiring police, EMS and added restrooms and a point person for the neighbors.
Several neighbors then spoke critically about the new building, and more so of the tag sale.
Julianne Summerton said the tag sale causes her personal health and safety concerns because the traffic and congestion could delay ambulances and fire engines. She also said the building doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood.
Bill Perrone, who lives on Old Parish Road, off West Avenue, said he was speaking on behalf of his neighbors. He was concerned that a larger cabin would increase the usage and said the neighbors’ input truly hadn’t been weighed.
Perrone also questioned the impact the larger cabin could impact surrounding property values and was just a “thinly disguised status symbol.”
Perrone also said the tag sale has gotten “way too big for the site” and said it makes the area look like a “refugee camp.” He added that he and his neighbors have people park on their lawn and they are forced to put out cones. Perrone also questioned the need for the tag sale to be in Darien as most of the customers aren’t residents, according to him.
Lucia Palmiero, another West Avenue neighbor, said the tag sale also presents challenges for her. She said people block her driveway, come on her property and ring her bell asking to use her bathroom. Palmiero also said some visit the property late at night during the tag sale time forcing her to call police.
Darien Boy Scouts Communications Manager Rebecca Martorella re-emphasized the need for the new building was not about the tag sale.
“When the cabin was built, there was one Boy Scout troop — now there are two and four Cub Scout troops,” she said.
Martorella added that with the program now open to girls, that could increase participation.
She also added that the extra storage would provide space for camping gear, cooking gear, and a central location for historical documents. She said the tiny galley kitchen isn’t enough for the usage.
Neighbor Chris Roland said the new building looked like a “storage facility” and the neighbors don’t want to look at a storage facility.
He also said he hoped P&Z could put stipulations in about having activities cease by 10 p.m. every day and make sure it was limited to scout-related activities.
Darien resident Robin Hayes, chief executive officer of jetBlue, spoke on behalf of the project. He said he had two sons who were Eagle Scouts — and said that his sons’ projects better the community.
“We have one of the best scouting programs in the country and one of the few with dedicated land. Our scouting has a long tradition,” he said.
He also said that the “scout makes the most of outdoors by planning indoors” so they need inside space, and said the tag sale is “critical for annual fundraising goals,” and said it provides a chance to sell a bicycle to “a little kid who wouldn’t have access otherwise.”
Almost all the neighbors emphasized they were supportive of the Darien Boy Scouts program and valued scouting as a whole. They said their criticisms were not related to scouts.
P&Z Commissioners decided to extend the public hearing to a future meeting in order for the Darien Boy Scouts to provide details as to the use of the property, numbers of attendees, frequency of activities, timing and and a way to insure that usage of the new cabin will not expand beyond Boy Scouts.
As far as the tag sale, a neighbor provided the commission with the special permit that reportedly allowed the scouts a week of tag-sale activity.
“I realize how good it is,” Chairman John Sini said.
He asked Gleason, if the permit is only for one week, “tell us how the tag sale meets our zoning regs.”
“As it stands now, it doesn’t come close,” Sini said.
On Wednesday morning, Sini confirmed to The Darien Times that the commission had asked for more information before making a decision.
"The commission requested that the applicant provide additional detail related to the activities at the cabin, including those related to the annual tag sale, in order to better understand the intensity of the property's use,” he said.
“This should allow the commission to better gauge the proposal's impact on the safety and welfare of the surrounding neighborhood, which is required for every Special Permit review,” he said.